Taxpayer awarded costs over HMRC’s unreasonable conduct

A recent VAT case heard by the First-Tier Tribunal (Gekko & Company Ltd v HMRC (TC06029)) highlighted worrying aspects of HMRC’s handling of the case and even awarded costs against HMRC. The Tribunal clearly felt strongly about the case, with the decision stretching over 29 pages for a case involving an assessment to VAT of £69 and three assessments of penalties of £780, £8.85 and £10.35 respectively.

The decision begins by stating that it , “is a great deal longer than we would ordinarily write in a case involving such small amounts: this is because there are a number of disturbing features about the way the case has been conducted by the respondents (HMRC).”

The case involved a property developer company who HMRC claimed had made errors on their VAT returns, with the biggest one being an omission of £5,200 of output tax (which the Tribunal later found to actually be £4,880).

The penalty notices were found to be invalid because the original assessments had been withdrawn and new ones had not in fact been issued. The tribunal found that, even if they had been valid, the penalty of £780 should have been reduced to nil as the behaviour was careless but the disclosure was unprompted and that the other two penalties should be cancelled as there was no inaccuracy.

In deciding to award costs to the taxpayers, the Tribunal were particularly critical of HMRC. We enclose a passage from this below regarding HMRC’s change of opinion from an unprompted to prompted disclosure:

“We consider, having thought about this long and hard, that there are two possible explanations for this volte face. One is that there was incompetence on a grand scale. The other is that there was a deliberate decision to keep the dispute alive, when on the basis of the reviewing officer’s remarks it would have been discontinued, by seeking to revisit the “prompted” issue. The facts that have caused us not to dismiss this possibility include the minimal information about the change with no explanation and the hopelessly muddled response with its spurious justification that Miss Pearce sent when the appellant spotted the change. Of course we have had no evidence from those involved and do not intend in this decision to make any findings about the matter. But it is something we have to take into account in deciding whether HMRC’s conduct in this case was unreasonable.”

The Tribunal cancelled the VAT and penalties and awarded costs to the taxpayer.

Overall, this case seems to echo our recent experiences with HMRC and shows a worrying trend in decreasing quality of HMRC case handling and emphasis on winning at all costs, regardless of the merits of individual cases.

What happens when laws collide?

Here is a case which emphasises points about pre-planning for tax purposes.  It may also be one for legal philosophers!

In the recent case of G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Ltd v CIR, the Courts followed the old case of CIR v Alexander von Glehn and held that payments of fines should not be allowed as tax deductible.

So far, so good.  It even sounds sensible as public policy: but –isn’t there a ‘but’ in tax matters – the fine in Alexander von Glehn was for ‘collaborating with the enemy in time of war’; maybe many business owners may distinguish this from parking fines incurred by getting armoured cash delivery vans close to shops/banks to protect employees and the public from extra risk of armed robbery, but by doing so infringing parking regulations.  The statutory fines in the G4S case were for parking infringements.

The Courts accepted:-

  1. It made sense (and was accepted by the police) to minimise the time/distance that the person delivering the cash had to spend outside the van.
  1. G4S owed a duty of care to their staff, customers and the general public, so parking close by, even in crowded shopping centres made sense.  Thus, health and safety law was to a degree in conflict.
  1. Parking infringements were not on a par of severity with ‘collaborating with the enemy’.

Nevertheless, the Courts decided that it was inappropriate to grant a tax allowance for the payment of statutory fines, so G4S lost out on a substantial tax relief to what they had generally seen as an occupational hazard.  Interestingly, G4S did ‘advance deals’ with some Councils whereby in exchange for a lump sum in advance, they got an agreement that the parking wardens would not issues tickets for certain G4S parking infringements.  These were agreed to be tax deductible, showing that a different structure can lead to the same commercial end, but in a more tax efficient manner.

In the G4S case the First Tier Tribunal quoted the judge in McKnight v Shepherd as an illustration of how the tax picture may be altered by minor distinctions.  Mr Justin Lightman said, “The authorities reveal what a fine line may need to be drawn between what is within and what is outside the trader’s profit earning activities and there are to be found subtle distinctions not immediately obvious to minds of mere ordinary intelligence”.

Lessons to be drawn:

  1. This case could be a rich earner for HMRC with tax, interest and penalties falling on the multitude of delivery firms set up to provide services in these days of internet shopping.  No doubt a number of them will face similar traffic fines and treat them as an incidental cost of doing business.
  1. Forewarned is forearmed, so checking future accounts for fines etc., and then adding them back, would seem prudent.  This is unlikely to be the outcome desired by the business, but HMRC are getting stricter with imposing penalties on even ‘technical’ mistakes.
  1. Advance thought and planning can help the same commercial ends be achieved – with a better tax outcome.

Make Sure HMRC Notices are Valid! – Technicalities and Human Rights Law

Recent cases have emphasised the importance of that European Human rights laws have on the UK tax system; however the cases and our own recent experiences suggest that HMRC do not take these implications seriously.

The recent Tribunal case of PML Accounting Ltd v HMRC [2015] considered a number of issues, including one relating to Human Rights.  The case involved an HMRC Notice requiring information from PML Accounting and the firm’s appeal against a penalty for failing to provide the information on time.

The Tribunal found that the information notice had not been complied with and that the taxpayer did not have a reasonable excuse for the failure.  However, they also determined that the Notice was invalid as it had been issued under the wrong piece of legislation.

The notice was issued under FA 2008 Sch 36, para 1 as part of a review of the company’s position under the Managed Service Company Legislation.

The Tribunal determined that there had been suggestion that any investigation under the MSC legislation would lead to a charge on PML.  As a result, the information notice should have been issued under paragraph 2 (third-party notices) instead of paragraph 1.

The Tribunal also concluded that the Notice breached the human rights of PML’s clients as it had been issued under the wrong paragraph.  A paragraph 2 notice relating to third-parties provides a level of protection for the taxpayers involved as they may not be issued without either the taxpayer’s prior consent or the tribunal’s approval.

There have also been a number of other cases highlighting the inadequacy of HMRC’s approach to human rights law.  For example, in Bluu Solutions Ltd v RCC [2015], the Tribunal confirmed that a tax penalty, which is meant to be punitive and to deter, is “criminal” for the purposes of Article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  This provides taxpayers subject to HMRC penalties with additional protection stating that taxpayers have the right to a fair trial and requires that the taxpayer is presumed innocent, with the burden of proof on HMRC.  Also proceedings have to be brought within a reasonable time, and the taxpayer must have enough resources and time to defend against the penalty.

Further protection is provided by Article 7 which requires that any penalty should have a clear basis in law and therefore where there is genuine uncertainty as to the underlying tax law, it could potentially be a breach of Article 7 to impose penalties based on non-payment.

These points all provide extra protection that advisors should bear in mind when assisting clients faced with HMRC investigations.  If you have any concerns over HMRC’s approach then please contact us and we will be delighted to assist.

Procedural Issues – Tax Case Law

Recent tax case law has brought out some interesting points on how the Courts view operational issues.

1. Tax avoidance schemes associated with the film industry seem to follow inevitably (with various complications) from the complex tax reliefs which are designed to promote film finance. It seems to lead to a slightly odd dichotomy where the Chancellor sets law to give relief on film investment and is then surprised and upset when schemes are set up to exploit the reliefs. In Samarkand the tax avoidance scheme failed, partly because the Courts found emails which included phrases such as ‘Don’t mention this, it smells of pre-ordained’. This reinforced HMRC’s case that the scheme was not a straightforward use of the relief, but an artificial tax avoidance scheme, with no real commercial substance. A good rule of thumb would be to train staff not to put anything on file which they would be embarrassed to read out in court.

2. An interesting one in terms of postal submissions is the recent case of O’Keeffe. The taxpayer claimed his wife had posted his Return some weeks before the deadline. HMRC said they had not received it until a month after the deadline. They succeeded with their imposition of a late filing penalty.

Whilst the First Tier Tribunal agreed that mail may go astray, which could be a reasonable excuse, there was no proof of postage in this case. It would be interesting to hear what evidence HMRC put forward in terms of date of receipt, as mail does seem to go astray more often than it used to and with the closure of so many Post Offices obtaining routine proof of postage would be difficult for many.

3. Final procedural point – and statement of the obvious – encourage clients to keep proper records. The lack of a clear trail of what was owing led to the taxpayer in Michiels losing a bad debt relief claim against profit, because on balance the outstanding sums related to a later period.

Negligence, Private Residence Relief and Penalties

In the recent case of J Day & A Dalgety, two taxpayers had sold three properties that they owned together. The case concerned negligence and penalties for carelessness, as they did not include any details of capital gains relating to the property sales on their returns.  They argued that this was because the gains were below the annual exemption and therefore did not realise that they needed to be included.

One of the taxpayers also claimed that one of the houses sold was their only or main residence and that Private Residence Relief (PRR) should have been available.

HMRC raised discovery assessments and levied penalties for carelessness on both taxpayers, which they appealed.

The First-tier Tribunal agreed that the taxpayers had been careless in not including details on the returns.  The taxpayers made a number of errors in their calculations, including attempting to deduct mortgage fees, claiming they were deductible under TCGA 1992, s 38(1)(c).  However, the tribunal found that such costs were not included in the list of “incidental costs” in s 38(2) and were therefore not allowable.

In terms of the PRR claim, the tribunal found that the first taxpayer had not lived in the property with any degree of permanence or continuity as required by the relevant case law (Goodwin v Curtis [1998] STC 475).  No notice had been given to HMRC or to his employers that he had moved house and no invoices were addressed to him at the property.

The Tribunal dismissed the taxpayers’ appeals, agreeing with HMRC that both taxpayers had been negligent in preparing their tax returns by not including details of the property disposals.

It is important to ensure that proper care is taken with filing self-assessment tax returns and all relevant sources of income or gains are included where required in order to mitigate the risk of penalties.    Eaves and Co would be happy to assist if you or your clients have any concerns.

Sympathy for the Devil

More cases on the scope of HMRC powers.

The first concerns a current successful barrister.  His penalty for failing to react to HMRC information notices was £1.2m+.  Many would say “Ouch!  That hurt!”  However, in this case, the judge in the Upper Tribunal pointed out that some of the information requested went back over 9 years to the death of the taxpayer’s father and his Inheritance Tax affairs.

The judge found it “difficult, if not impossible to understand why a man of the Taxpayer’s means had not appointed a professional advisor to help him deal with all his tax affairs”.  The judge felt the money spent on penalties could have been far better used! (CRC v Ronnie Tager).

With the background to the case and the incredibly lengthy delays in getting information, it is difficult to avoid thinking HMRC were on the side of the angels in this case.

In the case of J Dyson, the taxpayer appealed against a penalty for late filing of a partnership return.  He said he had done all he could to ensure compliance, but it was held that he had no right of appeal whatsoever, because only the ‘representative partner’ had any rights of appeal.

Whilst it seems reasonable that the ‘representative partner’ should generally be the main point of contact for HMRC, to deny altogether the rights of other partners would seem a trifle un-sporting.  The First Tier Tribunal thought so and felt it was in breach of his civil rights that he had no right to a fair hearing.  However, their conclusion was that they had no powers to overrule the legislation.  As the first case notes, individual taxpayers can be unco-operative, and that must be frustrating for Revenue Officers.  However, does that make it appropriate for them to take action against other taxpayers, where the position is perhaps unfair?

The final ‘powers’ case shows that repayments of excess tax paid in earlier years, under self- assessment may be reclaimed in appropriate circumstances.  Andrew Michael Higgs overpaid tax on account.  The courts held the taxpayer was not limited by the 4 year time limit generally applying on claims.

A fair summary of the line of cases would seem to be that:

a)     Circumstances alter cases.  If unfortunately you find yourself amidst disaster, then look carefully at the facts to try to detect an escape hatch.

b)    Investing in timely reporting and good professional advice to keep matters up to date is likely to be money well spent, both financially and emotionally.

 A TAX IN TIME SAVES NINE.

When Can HMRC Suspend a Penalty?

Where a taxpayer is subject to a penalty from the tax year 2008/09 onwards, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have the power to suspend a penalty for a careless inaccuracy.

However what many people may not be aware of is that in addition to HMRC granting a suspension it is also possible for the taxpayer to request that they do so.

If HMRC refuse to suspend a penalty it is possible to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal, but the tribunal can only allow your appeal if it thinks that the HMRC decision is flawed.

A complete failure to exercise the discretion, i.e. not to consider a suspension in light of the taxpayer’s circumstances, is generally considered a flawed decision.

There is however nothing which prevents HMRC adopting policies or practices which indicate factors it may take into account when exercising its discretion; so long as they do not prevent consideration of individual circumstances.

HMRC’s instruction to staff is to only consider a suspension where they can set at least one condition that, if met will help the taxpayer to avoid a further penalty.

Some officers claim that HMRC cannot suspend a penalty for errors involving capital gains tax (CGT).  This is incorrect as there is no reason that HMRC cannot suspend a penalty in relation to CGT providing at least one condition can be set.

Case law however has proved inconclusive. In Fane v HMRC the tribunal accepted HMRC’s view that a one-off error was not suitable for a suspended penalty, however in Boughey v HMRC the tribunal disagreed and overturned the decision not to suspend.  Both tribunals said that the suspension conditions need not relate to the specific error.

Penalties for deceased persons in prior years contradicts human rights | IHT Planning

Penalties for deceased persons have been an area of contention recently.  For those individuals who die not having their tax affairs in order, HM Revenue & Customs are able to go back and enquire into an individual’s tax affairs for the 6 tax years prior to the date of the deceased’s death, in the case of careless or deliberate understatement of tax.

However, HM Revenue & Customs are no longer allowed to apply penalties for deceased persons in relation to the tax affairs of the 6 tax years preceding the individual’s death as it is deemed to be a contravention of an individual’s human rights.

Eaves and Co have been able to apply this to a recent client situation where an individual had died not disclosing trading income to HM Revenue & Customs. This had led to undisclosed profits resulting in unpaid tax for the 6 years prior to their death. This would have incurred significant penalties for non-disclosure without the case law findings against the application of penalties.

Special Isn’t Necessarily Exceptional – White (TC02050)

Under the new penalty regime, which covers the majority of taxes, there are minimum and maximum penalty levels prescribed under the legislation based upon the behaviour and quality of disclosure made by a taxpayer.

However many are unaware that HMRC have the discretion to reduce a penalty below the minimum percentage if the failure (resulting in a penalty) arises as a result of ‘special circumstances’.

HMRC guidance states that this means the circumstances have to be  “exceptional”. However a recent tax tribunal found that if this definition was used the results would be too restrictive.  The judge said  that special circumstances were more akin to “something out of the ordinary, something unknown” and therefore they did not necessarily have to be exceptional.

The effect of this  was that HMRC had not correctly considered whether “special circumstances” applied.  Upon considering the facts the tribunal found that ‘special circumstances’ did in fact apply and therefore the original penalty was reduced by 60%.

It will be interesting to see whether HMRC use their power of discretion to reduce a penalty more widely in light of this case.

Disclosures – Act Now!

HM Revenue and Customs recently announced that a plumber who failed to disclose income tax of £91,000 has been jailed for tax fraud for 12 months.

This case highlights that HM Revenue and Customs are cracking down on tax evasion; clients and their advisers should carefully consider making voluntary disclosures now.

There are a number of disclosure schemes available which may offer benefits such as; reduced penalties, the ability to limit the number of years that HM Revenue and Customs may go back to assess tax, payment of tax by instalments and protection against criminal prosecution.

Current disclosure facilities include:

  • The Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility (LDF) – where taxpayers do not currently have assets in Liechtenstein it may be possible to transfer assets now so as to qualify for the terms of the LDF
  • E-Markets Disclosure Facility – this facility is aimed at people who sell goods or services on online websites (such as eBay or Amazon) and whose activities are treated as a trade for tax purposes
  • Electrician’s Tax Safe Plan (ETSP) – please note that the deadline to notify intention to disclose under this facility is 15 May 2012
  • The UK-Swiss Tax Treaty – whilst not strictly a disclosure facility the impact of the UK-Switzerland Tax Treaty should be considered carefully by those with undisclosed Swiss income.

At Eaves & Co we have experience of preparing voluntary disclosures and have successfully submitted disclosures under the LDF for a number of clients.  For further advice regarding the disclosure of unpaid tax please contact Eaves & Co Specialist Tax Advisors’ Leeds office on 0113 244 3502.